Repton’s starring role - 80th anniversary of Goodbye Mr Chips

Repton's picturesque village scene

Repton's picturesque village scene - Credit: Archant

As the film classic Goodbye Mr Chips celebrates its 80th anniversary Nigel Powlson looks back on how a Derbyshire village became an important part of movie history

The spire of St Wystan's can be seen in the background in this scene from the film

The spire of St Wystan's can be seen in the background in this scene from the film - Credit: Archant

The year 1939 is widely regarded as the greatest single 12 months in movie history.

As war clouds gathered over Europe, Hollywood had a burst of creativity that resulted in a plethora of films that have gone on to earn classic status and which are still watched by millions 80 years later.

If the only films that had come out that year had been Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Drums along the Mohawk and The Hunchback of Notre Dame it would have been seen as a vintage year. But we also had some of the most famous Westerns of all time - Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power in Jesse James; Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Destry Rides Again and John Wayne in Stagecoach. Basil Rathbone became one of the best-loved occupants of 221B Baker Street in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Errol Flynn starred in Dodge City whilst Buster Crabbe journeyed into space as Buck Rogers.

If you are still unconvinced, then what really makes 1939 Hollywood's golden year is that it also produced two of the best-loved and most successful films of all-time with Judy Garland clicking the heels of her ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz and Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable taking on the American Civil War in Gone with the Wind.

The priory arch, familiar to generations of visitors

The priory arch, familiar to generations of visitors - Credit: Archant

When adjusted for inflation, the four-hour epic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's book is the most successful film of all time. It has also been seen by more people at the cinema than any other movie. History records that it also took the Oscars by storm, picking up ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenplay.

But it didn't quite sweep the board because against all the odds a film shot in a quiet corner of Derbyshire spoiled the party and denied the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, from collecting an Oscar for playing the gambler and blockade runner Rhett Butler.

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That film was Goodbye Mr Chips, by contrast to Gone with the Wind's all-American bluster a quintessentially low-key British affair set in a public school - and which just happened to put Repton in the spotlight.

Based on a James Hilton novella it was the surprise package of 1939, not only taking more money than the Wizard of Oz at the American box office but also snatching the Oscar from under Gable's nose thanks to a fine performance from Robert Donat as the stoic schoolmaster Mr Chipping.

Scenes filmed at Repton

Scenes filmed at Repton - Credit: Archant

Goodbye Mr Chips has become a movie classic still treasured by critics and audiences alike. It consistently ranks in the lists of movie greats and was included in the BFI's 100 Greatest British Films of All Time. Perhaps more surprisingly the American Film Institute made Mr Chipping number 41 on its list of all-time movie heroes above Zorro, Batman and the Terminator - not bad for a humble Repton schoolmaster.

Goodbye Mr Chips was one of a trio of stories written by Hilton that were turned into classic films alongside Lost Horizon and Random Harvest. Born in Lancashire, Hilton was the son of a headmaster and drew on his father's experiences and his own school days for Goodbye Mr Chips which was first published in 1934 a year after Lost Horizon. It was originally seen in the magazine The Atlantic before appearing in book form.

Mr Chipping was said to be an amalgamation of Hilton's father and a master at Leys School in Cambridge where the young writer was educated.

Hilton was lured to Hollywood in the mid-1930s after the success of his books and wrote several fine screenplays, winning an Oscar for the war-time drama Mrs Miniver. That film, like Goodbye Mr Chips, was set in England, so even whilst Hilton was writing in the Californian sunshine it was still rainy England that was the focus of his stories.

A coveted British Film Institute plaque from 1996 awarded to commemorate the industry's 100th anniversary

A coveted British Film Institute plaque from 1996 awarded to commemorate the industry's 100th anniversary - Credit: Archant

The fact that a big budget screen version of this quaint British story was made by a big Hollywood Studio has everything to do with the success of the book in America. After publication in The Atlantic it was picked up by Little Brown and Company and caught the imagination of the Depression-era public. Each print run quickly sold out and it was a best-seller long before it first appeared in Britain in October 1934.

The story is about an honest and decent man who dedicates his life to educating boys at an English public school. Teaching Greek and Latin, the rarefied air of school life might have permanently kept him away from the real world if it wasn't for a chance meeting with a young woman on a walking holiday in the Alps. His marriage to his beloved Katherine (played by Greer Garson) broadens his world but ends tragically when she dies in childbirth and he buries himself back into the institution of the school.

It's a bittersweet tale about life, love and regrets that although based on Hilton's Leys School was located in the fictional setting of Brookfield School from 1870 to 1933. The story has been regularly adapted for stage, screen, TV and radio since the book was first published.

Hilton himself adapted his story for a BBC Radio production in 1936 and Laurence Olivier was Mr Chipping in another radio version three years later.

Film poster

Film poster - Credit: Archant

It was a stage hit in London in 1936 with Leslie Banks in the title role paving the way for a cinema adaptation.

At the time, one of the big Hollywood Studios, MGM, had a British wing based at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Denham Studios was granted the then considerable sum of $1 million to make the movie and began scouting for suitable locations.

Repton always had a strong case to be the chief location for the film, the historic village had just the right character to portray the Brookfield of Hilton's novel and the proximity of St Wystan's Church and Repton School perfectly fitted the depiction in the book. The fact that the new Sherlock Holmes, influential Hollywood actor Basil Rathbone, was an ex-pupil might also have been a factor in the decision.

Repton also has that sense of unchanging permanence that is one of the key attributes of the village of Brookfield and its school. Back in the 7th century, Repton had been the capital of the Kingdom of Mercia. The parish church of St Wystan has existed, in some form or other, since the eighth century.

Pears School at Repton School appeared in the film

Pears School at Repton School appeared in the film - Credit: Archant

A Priory was founded in 1172 but was dissolved at the time of the Reformation. Repton School occupies part of what remains of the old Priory - the headmaster's house and its library and museum.

At the entrance to the school is the Priory Arch which dates back to the mid-13th century and was once part of the Priory gatehouse.

The school itself dates to the 16th century (Brookfield in the novel was supposed to have been founded in 1492) and looked perfect to MGM location scouts in the late 1930s.

The school must have welcomed the opportunity to take part in this glamorous production because although the movie was filmed during the school holidays, hundreds of boys stayed on to play extras in key scenes. It also features prominently right from the start of the film which opens with a view of St Wystan's before a tracking shot takes audiences over the school buildings and beyond the entrance gate. We then see boys flocking back to school for the start of a new term.

The game of cricket is such an entrenched part of public school life that it was bound to play a key part in both the book and film, with Repton's cricket pitch providing the backdrop as Mr Chipping discovers how important the game is to pupils and their parents - initially to his cost.

The look and feel of Repton School is deeply embedded in the film and the Brookfield school song was recorded at a school assembly and is played over the end credits.

The only exterior shots in the entire movie were filmed at Repton. The rest of the film was made on sets back at Denham Studios - even the exterior shots of the Austrian Tyrol, with the threat of war curtailing any plans to film in Europe.

Ageing from 22 to 85, Robert Donat's performance impressed the Academy Awards voters in sufficient numbers to give him the Oscar that year. Goodbye Mr Chips was also nominated for Best Picture, Greer Garson for Best Actress, Sam Wood for Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay - losing out to Gone with the Wind in all those categories.

A 1969 musical version of Goodbye Mr Chips starring Peter O'Toole was filmed at Sherborne School in Dorset but a 1980s TV version starring Roy Marsden was much more in tune with the 1939 film and returned to Repton School for filming.

As it celebrates its 80th anniversary, Goodbye Mr Chips remains a cinema classic and is the reason why Repton School - as a key location in movie history - was awarded one of the coveted plaques that marked the 100th anniversary of British cinema.

Neither does the village's memorable role in film history go unremarked locally - wander along the High Street and you're sure to notice Repton's fish and chip shop with its unmissable name above the shop front - GOODBUY MR CHIPS. u